Obama Turns to Special Ops to Salvage His Legacy

Time and again, Barack Obama has turned to a small cadre of elite troops in the most important moments of his presidency. Can they do it one more time?

01.15.16 5:05 AM ET

Elite U.S. commandos are now in position in Iraq, northern Syria and beyond, ready to raid against the so-called Islamic State just as the White House has nominated a top special operations general to take charge of the ISIS fight.

Gen. Joseph Votel, who now heads American special operations forces, will take over U.S. Central Command, replacing Gen. Lloyd Austin if confirmed by the Senate. Votel, 57, previously ran the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite counterterrorist unit behind the new U.S. strike force in Iraq. Those JSOC operators are also working with rebel forces in Syria, as part of their widening footprint across the Mideast and Africa.

Votel’s appointment and the deployment of JSOC to spearhead the ISIS campaign shows that President Barack Obama is entrusting his national security legacy to the same elite group that killed Osama bin Laden—an achievement he made sure to mention in his last-ever State of the Union address.

The Obama administration is counting on the unit’s stepped-up operations over the next year to turn around largely negative public opinion of his track record against ISIS. It’s a perception reinforced by jihadist-inspired attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, Jakarta, and Istanbul—not to mention the terror group’s ongoing hold on major cities like Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria. A December Quinnipiac University poll that found 57 percent of Americans surveyed thought the U.S. and its allies are losing the fight against ISIS.

In response, JSOC’s counterterrorist operations have thickened in places like Libya, where a sizeable team of operators work in parallel with French and British special forces, three senior U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast. They focus on tracking and sometimes striking key figures with raids and airstrikes, like the November strike that killed ISIS leader Abu Nabil. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The officials predict the JSOC team in Iraq will enable a stepped-up campaign against ISIS in a matter of weeks, working in coordination with the Iraqi government and with Kurdish forces, raiding alongside them inside Iraq and staging unilateral raids into Syria. The strike force’s other major role is to feed intelligence from the CIA, NSA, and other agencies to Iraqi and Kurdish forces to sharpen their anti-ISIS campaign.

The special operations mission inside Syria is at a more embryonic stage, a long way from giving new intelligence and targeting information to rebel troops, according to a senior U.S. official who had been briefed this week on the operations.

“There are multiple complexities driving the assessment. It’s figuring out who is supporting who, and who are we going to be able to work with, and who will we not be able to,” the official said, speaking anonymously as a condition of describing the briefings.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter insisted this week that they are already helping.

“These forces have already established contact with new forces that share our goals, new lines of communication to local, motivated, and capable partners, and new targets for airstrikes and strikes of all kinds,” Carter said in remarks Wednesday. “They are generating new insights that we turn into new targets, new strikes, and new opportunities.”

The Syria-based special operations team has already started feeding important information to the White House.

“We do think we have begun to identify some places where we can have an impact… in the shaping operations for Raqqah,” ISIS’s de facto capital, an administration official said. That can include identifying the routes ISIS uses to resupply its weaponry for targeting, or even identifying segments of the city that might welcome liberation from an outside force.

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The White House would not comment on special operations outside Iraq and Syria, but confirmed Obama’s heavy reliance on the elite units in the ISIS fight.

“We have chosen special operations as one of the best ways to support our local forces on the ground… to make sure the victories against ISIS will be locally earned and locally sustainable,” the anonymous senior administration official said of the ISIS fight. 

“We are deploying them in a tactical, targeted and limited way, in small enough numbers that we deny ISIS the opportunity to talk about a foreign occupation and use them as a recruiting tool,” the official added.

The White House has also endorsed a special operations takeover of another part of the ISIS fight by putting former Navy SEAL and current head of special operations at the Pentagon, Michael Lumpkin, in charge of a revamped State Department effort to counter ISIS propaganda.

Previous iterations of State’s social messaging campaign included engaging in a public Twitter war with ISIS trolls, considered a mistake by many who practice the dark art known as psychological operations. Lumpkin is expected to leverage his background and relationships to step up the ISIS social media fight by taking it underground.

“Lumpkin understands that ISIS wants a co-dependency with the U.S. government, so to deny them that diminishes their strength,” said a former senior strategist for special operations, speaking anonymously to describe policy debates. He predicted Lumpkin will build a campaign that includes finding ways to enable local voices who are already denouncing ISIS to speak more loudly, while keeping the U.S. government in the background.

“The [Twitter hashtag] in London, ‘You ain’t no Muslim, bruv’, got more traction than any of the PSAs [public service announcements] that her majesty’s government aired, and Lumpkin knows that,” the former official said.

Presidents in need have frequently turned to special operations when faced with intractable problems. President John F. Kennedy supported expanding the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Green Berets during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Their primary mission was to train local forces for proxy fights against Communist-backed forces.

President Jimmy Carter turned to special operations forces to rescue U.S. hostages held by Iran in 1980, an attempt that failed, but led to Congress’s creation of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

The force grew under President George W. Bush after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, spearheading the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and later against the insurgent remnants of Saddam’s forces and al Qaeda in Iraq.

Special Operations Command has grown to nearly 70,000 troops, deployed in more than 70 countries worldwide, with a tempo that has barely slowed even as the Obama administration declares an end to combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Thursday, Votel was quick to point out that his special operations forces were one element in a larger U.S. government fight against ISIS.

“Special Operations forces aren’t in this by ourselves,” he said.

But senior administration officials concede that they have been an overused tool in the Obama national security toolbox, and may need to expand in size to meet the growing demand. The frequent refrain from senior special operations commanders is that the force is “frayed,” beset with high rates of suicide, divorce, and signs of combat stress like sleep disorders and heavy alcohol use.

Part of the reason they are so popular is the effectiveness of JSOC’s intelligence-driven operations, working the CIA and other agencies with what CIA chief John Brennan has called scalpel-like precision.

But most of the missions involve training and working with local forces at the invitation of foreign governments, which fits with the Obama administration’s goal to stop being the world’s policeman by enabling other forces to lead the charge in their regions. From Green Berets to Marine Raiders to Navy SEALs, small teams of U.S. operators are engaged in slow, grinding regional campaigns like the drug war in Latin America or the decades-long fight against Islamic militants in the Philippines.

“I think that President Obama appreciates the unique capabilities and approach that SOF [special operations forces] offers,” one senior special operations official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe senior policy discussions. “He has been a strong supporter of SOF and indeed all of our services,” the official said.

There’s been no shortage of grumbling at the Pentagon that the White House’s focus on special operations has created an impression that the U.S. can get by with a smaller army.

U.S. decision-makers have often preferred deploying special operators because of the ability to keep their missions secret, as designed by the laws that created them. That’s attractive to foreign governments that don’t want to reveal to their own people their reliance on foreign forces, and it’s attractive to U.S. administrations that don’t want to be accused of mission creep or an expansion of combat operations in countries where they’ve declared wars ended.

The emphasis on more clandestine operations makes it more challenging for human-rights groups and aid agencies because it’s harder to figure out who to call when they find evidence of civilian casualties or wrongdoing.

“A light footprint makes it more challenging for us because we don’t have as many counterparts to talk to on the ground,” said Dominik Stillhart, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross. During U.S. combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were large forces and commanders based in country that ICRC officials could meet face-to-face.

“We provide confidential reporting on conditions and treatment of detainees,” at U.S. facilities the Red Cross is allowed to visit, Stillhart said, or local villager accounts in the aftermath of U.S. special operations raids that help U.S. military chiefs police their own—reports he said that Special Operations Command and JSOC have both welcomed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With the expansion of more secretive U.S. operations worldwide, local ICRC officials in countries like Libya and Somalia find it more challenging to identify who to call.

Fewer U.S. boots on the ground also means that there aren’t always enough U.S. forces to monitor the behavior of those they trained, to make sure they are conforming to international laws of war and respect of human rights—a problem that cropped up in Afghanistan with Afghan local police who went rogue after their special operations trainers had departed the area.

The secrecy also ties the U.S. military’s hands when an operation is exposed to the public, captured on video thanks to the ubiquitous use of smart phones, and propagated on the Internet, or when special operations missions go sideways. A Green Beret was killed this month in southern Afghanistan, leaving behind a 3-month-old son. A member of the Army’s elite Delta Force was slain during a hostage rescue mission in Iraq this fall. And most disturbingly, an American gunship guided by U.S. special operators responding to a request from local forces hit a hospital in northern Afghanistan, killing 22 people.

All of the incidents are reminders that Obama’s commando-driven plan to save his legacy may not put thousands of American troops in harm’s way, but still come with heavy risks—and heavy costs.